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By Christoph Huber
“Who’d have thought 20 years ago that people would one day be nostalgic for the apocalypse?” Australian director-writer-producer George Miller mused before the release of the fourth installment of his most famous creation, which barrelled into theatres under the name Mad Max: Fury Road, showing out of competition in Cannes at the same time as almost everywhere else—the first A-list festival slot for one of the great popular filmmakers of his generation. The joke about this telling Miller quote fits well with the numerous ironies evoked by the postmodern clash of retro-futuristic bricolage characterizing the post-apocalyptic landscape and its crazily outfitted, if not outright crazy, inhabitants inevitably associated with the Mad Max universe, whose genesis and impact is laid out expertly in Adrian Martin’s excellent 2003 book The Mad Max Movies (to which I am also indebted for some salient Miller statements in this article). As Martin notes in his book, Miller made the statement above in an August 1999 BBC interview, where he still envisioned Mel Gibson reprising the role that launched his stardom two decades earlier and promised the fans it would be worth the long wait: “It’s going to take Max into a new direction.”
Well, yes—and (thankfully) no! Another rousing action-movie success, the fourth Mad Max may be the most elaborate demonstration of Miller’s astonishing stylistic talent, the instant legibility of his high-speed montage symphonies standing tall even more in an era of visually incoherent smash-bang-assaults facilitated by digital editing. Although Miller employs digital trickery in Fury Road, and ingeniously so, the return of Mad Max is a celebration of old-school resourcefulness—an adrenaline-high, audiovisual experience whose impact derives from meticulously pre-planned sequences, with every single shot clicking together effortlessly and forcefully to form a satisfying whole. Even more importantly, Miller still conceives his confrontations, crashes, and chases via analogue means, lending them (and the camera movements) a physical credibility. “Did they really do this?” is a quality that digital wizardry can’t achieve. Computer effects may allow for hitherto inconceivable creations, but these flights of fancy have remained essentially weightless, recognizable as an approximation, whereas Fury Road is chock-full of handmade moments communicating the excitement and danger of actual vehicular mayhem.
The recent Furious 7—the latest installment in one of many film series proving the lasting influence of Mad Max—is a good example, its welcome analogue vestiges dissipating as it hurtles to an interchangeable, disappointing virtual-action climax. (The money shot of a sports car jumping repeatedly from one skyscraper to the next is amusing enough, but in no way believable.) The stunts in Fury Road are anchored in reality, despite being set in a universe ostensibly far more removed from our “real world.” Apart from digitally removing wires, merging landscapes, changing colours, or generating effects like the prosthetic arm of Fury Road’s near-eponymous heroine Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Miller mostly takes advantage of the new possibilities to speed up or slow down individual shots to ideal frame-rates for editing his carefully storyboarded action montages. Additionally readjusting the frames to keep the viewer’s gaze focused on relevant information even during split-second cuts, Miller allows the audience to comprehend how it all comes together, without wasting a beat in his lightning-speed assemblage of syncopated edits or compromising his penchant for grotesque panoramas.
A key ingredient of the Mad Max movies is their claim to “pure cinema,” creating a cavalcade of images and sounds that, as Miller once explained, “cannot be experienced any other way.” Formally, Fury Road does that legacy proud, especially in glorious 2D, but to evaluate whether its innovations in content really take Max in a new direction, one first needs to take stock of the evolution of the Maxiverse, as well as action cinema in general ever since a little Australian sleeper (and surely the continent’s greatest B picture) called Mad Max (1979) surprisingly turned into a worldwide hit and spawned two higher-budgeted vehicles that are among the most influential films ever made, period.
Mad Max 2 (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) established a vocabulary of postmodern, post-apocalyptic ingredients and imagery since subsumed by the entirety of pop culture. An Aussie capstone for that ’70s mainstay, the revenge-based road movie with a touch of arthouse allure and an anti-heroic arc, the original Mad Max is predicated on a deliberately vague notion of the general breakdown of society. As far as dystopian (science?) fiction goes, it only contains the seeds for the flashy baroque wasteland its sequels made into an iconic image of collapsed civilization, and, if anything, may indeed be more of a model for escalating-anarchy actioners leading up to The Purge (2013). Initially not-very-mad Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) enters the saga as a cop for the Australian Highway Patrol (given the slightly futuristic moniker Main Force Patrol), who is drawn into daily battles with renegade gangs prowling deserted Australian streets. (Max’s growing taste for violence clashes with his happy family life.) After Goose, his best friend on the force, is left to burn in a crashed vehicle by the thugs, Max takes a vacation with wife and kid, who are assaulted, then literally run over by the villains led by the fearsome Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne camping it up, Royal Shakespeare style).
Brutally dispatching the key perpetrators one by one, Max works himself up to a climax that has been a key inspiration for Saw (2004), attesting to the potency of the genre mix used by Miller to spice up the road action: in Mad Max he employs horror, western, wacky comedy, even a dash of sappy melodrama. Before becoming the trademark lone wolf, Max even has a couple of sentimental scenes with his beloved, infused with constant movement by Miller, a rough-hewn anticipation of the strategy perfected in his intimate drama Lorenzo’s Oil (1992). But more telling is the way Miller introduces his hero, going for a slow reveal via successive details (the back of Max’s head, his hands, his leather jacket, his reflection in the rear-view mirror) before hurtling him into action for a superbly orchestrated mini-montage symphony, switching gears from comically tinged establishing scenes to a spectacular chase topped by an indelible crash-and-burn shocker. A roller-coaster ride of hair’s-breadth evasions and hair-raising reversals, the scene establishes the core appeal of the Max movies as well as its director’s instant command as a purely visual storyteller.
Having hilariously illustrated the power the image can have over the word with his previous short Violence in the Cinema, Part 1 (1971), Miller felt “naturally” inclined towards montage as organizing principle, remaining Australia’s best bet to be a “total filmmaker.” Building excitement with a nearly unerring sense of rhythm for calibrating his flow of edits, Miller allows for complete spatial orientation as split-timing inserts, manipulated durations, and expressive angles achieve maximum visceral impact, emotionally and literally: cars, bodies, or weapons approach one another in jolting ways and, finally, collide. From the characteristic low-horizon POV shots dashing down the highway, roping in the viewer, to powerful elisions (the gang’s wipeout of Max’s wife and son evoked by a near-empty counter-shot, until a shoe and the kid’s little ball are thrown into the frame) and painfully felt shock cuts (head-on collisions are preceded by a zoom-in on bulging eyeballs, an old-school prosthetic effect that has migrated successfully, along with Keays-Byrne, to Fury Road), Miller emerges as a fully formed filmmaker. He draws concrete results from expertly applied abstractions, a virtuoso act of balancing opposites in the tiniest edits as well as in the big picture, even cutting through the most chaotic action set-pieces with geometric clarity and creating an irresistible undertow by alternating acceleration and slowdown, silence and thunder.
Made for the now-ludicrous sum of $350,000, Mad Max proved a frustrating shoot for Miller, who constantly lacked sufficient resources. He even had to raise part of the budget by working emergency-room shifts in his original profession as a doctor, in the process drawing first-hand inspiration for what he considered “a reflection of Australian car culture.” The ingenious recycling of spare parts throughout the film may have mirrored the production circumstances, but laid the groundwork for the flamboyant applications in the steampunk-driven sequels, which also went wild with leather attire, although Max’s boss Fifi (lovingly addressed as Fif and played with gusto by Roger Ward) surely scores points the first time around. Big, beefy, bald, and preferably bare-chested, but bedecked with a white scarf, he attends to his flowers at home with a tiny watering can, merry military music playing on his stereo. Fif also leads the discussion on the notion of heroism, another mostly unformed element that would become crucial in the following films: “They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!” To which Max replies: “Ah, Fif. Do you really expect me to go for that crap?” Having travelled down the revenge road, Max ultimately closes his eyes at the wheel after a Pyrrhic victory, a “burnt-out shell of a man,” as the opening narration of Mad Max 2 puts it.
Striving for the universal mythology of Joseph Campbell, whose work he had discovered between films, Miller paved the way for going global with The Road Warrior, as Mad Max 2 was retitled for US release (as well as dubbed, like its predecessor). If Mad Max was simply a movie, and a truly terrific exploitation extravaganza at that, Miller fulfilled his ambitions the second time around by creating something of an axiom. The film’s Australian-ness is additionally mitigated by being mostly subsumed into comedy bits, whose exaggerated absurdity is the flipside to the sheer freakishness of the Max look and the brutality conjured by Miller’s expressive stylizations. Mad Max 2 spoke a worldwide language, intensified by its reliance on visual storytelling—Max has about 16 lines of dialogue—and its anyplace desert setting, as universally resonant as the mythic ideas to which Miller aspired. The inventive filmmaking left mostly subconscious traces, a model example for truly satisfying action cinema that’s been mostly bowdlerized since, especially on wheels or after a calamitous event.
But it was the exciting look of the Maxiverse that secured its lasting legacy as pop-culture touchstone: an atavistic, alluring post-punk collision of extravagantly made-up humans, refurbished car parts, and free-floating debris that feels futurist and medieval at the same time. Though not entirely original, its smart combination of pop detritus tapped into a zeitgeist and gave it a popular expression. (See Tobe Hooper’s seemingly leather-Max-influenced video for Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself,” actually released before The Road Warrior hit the screen, whose décor was simply borrowed from a punk rock-themed play performed in Los Angeles.) The proliferation of Max tributes and variants has been legion in the decades since, be it in pop music (from Gary Numan’s instant appropriation for his Warriors album cover in 1983 to videos like 2Pac’s “California Love” or “Stylo” by the Gorillaz), video (and board!) games, television, novels, and comic books, manga and anime, even fashion collections, not to mention movies in general (too many to enumerate: feel free to spend half an hour on IMDb browsing through the film-related cross-references).
The iconic film of the series, Mad Max 2 is also exemplary in smoothing over its inconsistencies, starting with a cunning, surreal prologue that retroactively incorporates Mad Max into a gasoline-starved desert-wasteland timeline by combining calamitous black-and-white archival footage and scenes from the earlier film, which ostensibly ended about a week before the “fuel wars” caused global destruction, leaving the survivors battling for the last energy reserves. Accidentally ending up in “Gasoline Town,” a desert compound besieged like a medieval castle, Max is a disillusioned wanderer, who by the end will have “learned to live again,” per the prologue’s voiceover. The final revelation of the narrator is one of the witty surprises typical of the ingenuity with which Miller manages to distract from (deliberate?) inconsistencies, like the famous bracketing shot of Max standing by the side of a desert road, which on closer inspection turns out to be two superficially similar, but clearly different images. This fits a movie throughout which the alleged mythical hero is not acting heroically at all, with the single moment in his character arc that qualifies for that moniker—his willingness to steer the crucial vehicle for the concluding, awesome quarter-hour chase—necessitated by circumstances: “Believe me, I haven’t got a choice.” Meanwhile, the purportedly nefarious horde of opponents comes off as much more intriguing and colourful than the supposedly valiant group Max sides with. So even the schematic good-versus-evil template has to be taken mostly on good faith, but like the promised though mostly hypothetical evolution of Max, it serves to anchor the film in a tried-and-true template.
Although aspiring to avant-garde heights of kinetic mise en scène in his boldest stylizations, Miller can fall back on this comforting framework to keep the viewer hooked. Mad Max 2 conjures an ideal setting for his stop-and-go assaults, with exposition and bare-bones development of (mostly iconic, respectively typecast) characters giving way to furious forays into action during attacks and outside missions, before all the stops are pulled out for the climactic chase, a mini-masterpiece showcasing Miller’s skill with variations in tempo and point of view. (Fury Road is basically a two-hour elaboration of that scene.) Meanwhile, Miller cunningly parcels out just enough information to move from one energetic action-montage-furioso to the next and offers room for ambiguous projections into the blanks—like Max himself, whose actions seem tailored to fit the filmmakers’ momentary requirements, a reminder that the true star of the series is less Max than the world Miller creates around him.
Thus, it matters little that Tom Hardy has replaced Mel Gibson in Fury Road. Both are just fine in their Miller-assigned task of endowing the eponymous hero with a believably muscular presence, a job more about Eastwoodian “Man With No Name” understatement than character-driven acting. But if Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns had used Clint’s lone wolf to reflect on the world’s amorality, Max is adrift in an amoral universe. (Barely) suspending another contradiction, the Max appeal nevertheless stems from its junkyard vision of future disaster as both defeatist and celebratory, the inhabitants of the Maxiverse exuberantly reinventing themselves from scraps, resulting in the memorable mix-and-match of décor and costumes—Miller calls it “pop pageantry”—that has left an indelible impact. “Just because it’s the apocalypse, it doesn’t mean that people can’t create beautiful things,” is how Miller justified his aesthetic approach to the new film, giving his pageantry an additional digital boost by pursuing a colourful “graphic novel” look as opposed to the desaturated, bleak palette that has become the clichéd norm for most doomsday scenarios, even those indebted to Max.
Though hardly lacking in extravagant ideas, Beyond Thunderdome is usually considered the downer of the series, representing Miller’s unfortunate and (here’s where I’m partin’ with Martin) underrated attempt to sandwich an art movie in between remarkable action bits. (The death of Miller’s longtime friend, producer and business partner Byron Kennedy in helicopter crash while scouting locations cast an additional pall over the film.) Serving mostly as an augmentation to Mad Max 2, Thunderdome still contributed pivotal designs and concepts to the myth-turned-instant-cult, including a few ideas reworked more smoothly in Fury Road. Abandoning the accelerating arc adhered to by all other Max movies, Thunderdome is more of a baroque social epic, split by a notorious detour towards a tribe of nature children who mistake Max for their messiah. Curiously torn between sentimentality and satire, Thunderdome still soars when Miller intermittently shows his action chops, as in the final chase—the film’s major concession to the rules of sequels—or the indelible fight scenes set in the eponymous gigantic steel cage, the bread-and-circuses centre of Bartertown. The word “Thunderdome” immediately entered the English language to be adopted for numerous arenas (and gabba rave festivals), and while seriously unbalanced, the movie has proven memorable not least for its resonant vision of Bartertown, a matriarchal protocapitalist society literally fuelled by pig shit: I defy anyone to frivolously dismiss the film that gave us Master Blaster or the sight of Max’s fate being determined by a game-show wheel.
Expanding on the spectacular comic-book style and anarchic energy established in Mad Max 2—down to chases literally accompanied by a vehicle of pounding drummers and a wall-of-sound wagon governed by a freak guitarist with a fire-breathing instrument—Fury Road stands out amongst contemporary blockbusters, and not just for its directorial virtues. The year the original Max Max was released, the title of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) seemed fresh enough to become an instant buzzword, whose impact has only waned as audiences have had to put up with apocalypse all the time. Coming at the tail end of a decade whose super-productions flirted with disaster, whether natural or man-made (see 1974’s box-office double-whammy, The Towering Inferno and Earthquake), the first Max seemed a footnote to a passing fad. The first golden age of disaster movies failed to reignite, despite an atomic fizzle in the early ’80s, a zeitgeist phenomenon that may explain why the Max movies are regularly thrown into the post-nuclear bin despite avoiding any reference to the bomb. As Miller himself pointed out, an atomic strike would leave only “insects, grass, and mutants,” hardly the kind of apocalypse causing the nostalgia the director observed two decades later with the since-unending revival of disaster movies in full bloom. But even then, millennial angst and whatnot, the apocalyptic-blockbuster tendencies—although felt keenly enough in a decade that closed with Peter Hyams’ aptly titled Schwarzenegger vehicle End of Days (1999)—seem benign in comparison to the onslaught of doomsday scenarios unleashed by the dream factory after 9/11, a real-life/live-disaster-movie close enough to big-budget spectacles to make shell-shocked Hollywood promise respectful silence.
Once the opportune moment of piety had passed, the established formula of apocalyptic overkill reasserted itself with a vengeance. The new millennium’s monotonous mass assault of (at least) citywide destruction, by now de rigueur for a blockbuster’s “last act”—itself usually as long as your average ’30s programmer—is a continuous attempt to outperform its predecessor. Fantasies and comic-book sagas have taken over, maybe fulfilling a ritualized function as displaced representations of trauma, another layer of displacement added by the concurrent evolution of computer-generated imagery to the point of eroding the Bazinian faith in cinema’s capacity as a standard bearer of reality, with images manipulated and generated all too easily, leading to cataclysmic infernos feeling unreal. Advances in data processing and motion capture are rendered moot by Fury Road’s proof that a basis in reality still adds a sense of weight to the proceedings impossible to recreate artificially—the kick of action adhering to the laws of physics, using practical effects and real locations, not to mention self-built fantasy vehicles. The elaborate, dangerous-looking stunts have a real edge: Miller himself expressed surprise that the sequences with men swaying on poles atop moving vehicles could actually be shot instead of computer-generated.
The action also drives the story, its arc an absurd, adrenaline-boosting, back-and-forth movement in search of a fabled matriarchal idyll, punctuated by little pockets of breathing space. Max is captured by the army of Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne, back in harness), the tyrannical ruler of an artificial oasis in the fight-for-survival desert that resembles a surreally warped mirror of the current turbo-capitalist wasteland, with the pop pageantry possibly an equivalent of consumer goods, while the currency has become liquid—fuel, water, even mother’s milk. For in Immortan’s world, women are selected for breeding. Trying to escape with five of them in her war rig on a gasoline collection tour, Imperator Furiosa, soon joined by a fugitive Max, finds herself pursued by the tyrant and his entire army. Female power is here writ large: Warrior Woman (Virginia Hey) in Mad Max 2 offered a glimpse, Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity already proved a formidable opponent in Thunderdome, but in Fury Road Theron’s Furiosa has the star turn, with strong support from her co-fugitives, including Immortan Joe’s heavily pregnant wife.
The transformation of power is sealed by a final exchange of looks between Furiosa and Tom Hardy’s disappearing-in-the-crowd Max. Pointedly, this time Furiosa bears Max’ eye-wound stigmata, as seen on the iconic Mel Gibson incarnation at the end of the second film. It’s just another scar in the Maxiverse, where all people and things have been injured, mutilated, broken, and welded together again, bodies and psyches so ravaged that there’s little hope for a return to normality. The women may be strong, but they coexist with men in a world where both sexes have been so warped that normal contact, let alone joyful procreation, seems well-nigh inconceivable. There’s just the ongoing rush of struggling onward amidst accelerating chaos, the search for an elusive promised land—hilariously represented in Mad Max 2 by tacky promotional material for the city of Gold Coast, home to Surfers Paradise—in Fury Road being given a reality check. Back to that future? No wonder there’s so much nostalgia for the apocalypse. Then again, wasn’t it a hell of a ride?